Warning Signs of Respiratory Distress
Respiratory distress is a medical emergency. Your body relies on your respiratory system to supply the oxygen necessary for your organs to function. If you are struggling to breathe, your body may not get enough oxygen, and without enough oxygen, critical organs shut down.
Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of respiratory distress in infants, children and adults may help you protect the lives of your loved ones. If you notice any of these symptoms, call 911 or seek immediate medical attention.
At rest, most adults breathe 12 to 20 times per minute. Infants inhale and exhale approximately 30 to 60 times per minute, and children, between 24 to 30 times per minute. A person who is breathing more rapidly than normal, for no apparent reason, may be experiencing respiratory distress.
An increased respiratory rate is the body’s way of attempting to pull additional oxygen into the body. However, unless the underlying causes of respiratory distress are addressed, the situation will likely get worse instead of better.
2Shortness of breath
People who are experiencing respiratory distress often feel as if they can’t get enough air. It’s normal to feel short of breath when you exert yourself more than normal—say, when you run to catch a bus—but if you (or anyone else) feels short of breath at rest, something may be wrong.
Sudden shortness of breath is particularly alarming. Call 911 if someone develops shortness of breath for no apparent reason.
3Bluish lips or skin
We all know the lips and skin can take on a bluish color when we’re cold. Low temperature causes the blood vessels to shrink at the extremities. (That’s why kids often develop blue lips after swimming in cold lakes.) But a lack of oxygen can also cause the skin and lips to look blue. Here’s why: red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. When these cells are fully loaded with oxygen, they are a bright red color. When the blood does not have enough oxygen, it is a dark bluish-red color and the overlying skin may appear slightly blue.
4Chest retractions or nasal flaring
You know what healthy breathing looks like: the chest gently rises and falls with each breath. People who are experiencing respiratory distress have to work extra hard to breathe and you can often see their effort. You might notice what’s called chest retractions, or the muscles between the ribs sucking inward between breaths. Sometimes you can also see the muscles of the neck working as the person breathes. You might see nasal passages flare widely with each breath as well—that is nasal flaring.
The brain needs oxygen to function. When it doesn’t receive an ample supply of oxygen, the brain doesn’t work as well. In older adults and children, you might notice confusion. The person’s thinking might be slow and the individual may take longer than usual to respond to questions. Young children and infants may appear more tired or lethargic than usual. If someone is not behaving in their usual manner, seek medical attention, especially if they are also struggling to breathe.
6Wheezing and grunting
Breathing is usually quiet. You may hear the quiet rush of air on inhalation or exhalation, but that’s about it. People who are experiencing respiratory distress may make unusual sounds for a variety of reasons. Wheezing (a high-pitched sound that usually occurs on inhalation) often occurs when the airways are narrowed, as during an asthma attack. Grunting that is heard on exhalation is an unconscious attempt to hold air (and oxygen) in the lungs.
7Increased heart rate
When the body isn’t pulling in enough oxygen, the heart speeds up in an attempt to pump the oxygen it has throughout the body. An increased heart rate on its own isn’t necessarily an indicator of respiratory distress. Heart problems, infection and other health disorders can also cause a faster-than-normal heart rate. However, a fast pulse coupled with shortness of breath is a definite sign of a problem. Call 911.